Analysis

Gantz’s Mandate to Form Government Expires, Here's What Could Happen Next

Five scenarios leading to Israel's next government, or fourth election

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A banner depicts Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, and Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of the last election, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 17, 2020.
A banner depicts Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, and Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of the last election, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 17, 2020.Credit: Ammar Awad/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

As midnight passed in Israel and Benny Gantz’s (extended) mandate to form a government expired without a coalition agreement being signed between Likud and Kahol Lavan, the 21-day clock to a third consecutive Knesset dissolution and a fourth election started ticking.

On Thursday, President Reuven Rivlin informed Gantz that he was transferring the mandate to form a government to the Knesset. Over the next three weeks, any Knesset member who can gather 61 signatures of fellow lawmakers will have a 14-day mandate to form a government. A lot can happen in 21 days – here are the most likely scenarios.

Netanyahu-Gantz deal in 21 days

The deal to form a unity government that is on the table now is still nearly identical to the one agreed upon by Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two and a half weeks ago. It works well for both of them: Netanyahu gets to remain in power for another 18 months, while Gantz becomes prime minister in October 2021 – and in the meantime he and nearly all his remaining colleagues in Kahol Lavan, and probably two out of the three remaining Labor lawmakers, get jobs as ministers.

There are still some thorny legal issues to deal with, such as whether Likud has a say on senior legal and judicial appointments, and various amendments both sides are insisting upon to make the “rotation” deal watertight. They were close to signing on a number of occasions over the last couple of weeks, and the likeliest scenario is that they will find the way to do so over the next three. Once it’s signed, Netanyahu will get his 61 signatures and swear in his new government, with Gantz as his deputy. 

Israel's Knesset ahead of its inauguration on March 16, 2020.
Israel's Knesset ahead of its inauguration on March 16, 2020.Credit: Adina Wollman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

A fourth election

The polls look tempting for Netanyahu at the moment. Were elections held this week, his coalition could finally have an all-out Knesset majority and he would have the votes not only to serve another full term without giving Gantz half, but also to pass legislation granting him immunity from his prosecution for bribery and fraud. This is what is motivating Netanyahu to hold out in the talks with Gantz for a better deal from his perspective.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, March 2020.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

But Netanyahu is fully aware that his surge in the polls right now is due to the initial “rallying around the flag” effect of the coronavirus crisis. In three months, especially if the economy is slow to recover and there are still a million unemployed, things could look very different at the polls. So a fourth election is a possibility, but it’s much more likely that a deal will be reached beforehand. 

Narrow right-wing coalition

Now that Orli Levi-Abekasis, who was elected to the Knesset with the votes of Labor and Meretz supporters, has officially defected to the Netanyahu bloc, he has 59 lawmakers supporting a narrow coalition. He needs two more for a majority. Kahol Lavan's right-wing MKs, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser – who last month foiled a plan to form a Gantz government with the Joint List and have now formed their own splinter party, Derekh Eretz – are the prime candidates to go over to Netanyahu.

However, they have both made repeated commitments, as recently as Tuesday, that they are only going to support a national unity government. And these former Netanyahu aides have both spectacularly fallen out with him. So it’s unlikely. But 20 days from now, if a fourth election looms, don’t be entirely surprised if they suddenly find a way, “for the good of the nation,” to support Netanyahu's new government.

Anti-Netanyahu coalition 

Technically, there are still 62 lawmakers who ran in the election just six and a half weeks ago as candidates of parties who promised to replace Netanyahu. That’s a clear majority. But they couldn’t find a way to support the same government even before Gantz smashed Kahol Lavan into smithereens. It would be inconceivable for them to come together now at the last moment.

And yet, were Gantz to announce tomorrow that he now realizes he made a big mistake in entering talks with Netanyahu who was negotiating in bad faith all along, there is just the tiniest of chances he could reunite enough of the opposition to form a narrow anti-Netanyahu government. But Gantz is set upon a unity government and burning his bridges with his old partners. A reversal and reunification in the next three weeks are extremely unlikely.

A different Likud prime minister

This scenario is so outlandish that the only reason worth mentioning it is that it is present in Netanyahu’s paranoid nightmares.

Technically, any lawmaker can form a government over the next 21 days if they get the requisite 61 signatures. A scenario in which an MK who is neither Gantz or Netanyahu does so would be for another Likud lawmaker to come forward and get the support of both the coalition and some of the opposition parties who are against serving under an indicted prime minister, but not necessarily against a Likud prime minister. In Netanyahu’s nightmares, this MK is either Gideon Sa'ar or Yuli Edelstein, both of whom have entertained such thoughts in the not-too-distant past.

But Likud is firmly behind Netanyahu and none of its lawmakers are about to incur the party faithful’s wrath with a coup attempt. So it simply won’t happen. But the mere thought of it still makes Netanyahu sweat.